Part 1: Searching
“Do you like mysteries?”
Milt Ladowski sat behind what must have been, for him, his cheap desk. For me, the real-wood monster with five drawers would have been an unaffordable luxury, but Milt is a high-priced attorney, accustomed to luxury. In his part-time position as borough counsel for Midland Heights, New Jersey, he had to accept an office in Borough Hall, and this was the government-issued desk that came with it. You had to go slumming to do work for your community. Many are called; few chosen. Or was it the other way around?
“Yeah,” I told him. “I love mysteries. I just got done reading the latest Janet Evanovich. Why, do you want me to write one?”
“No. I want you to solve one.”
Well, that was a mystery in itself. You want somebody to solve a mystery, you generally don’t go to a freelance writer. Nine times out of ten, you might want to consult, say, a detective. Or a cop. Freelancers are more likely to be consulted when your goal is to publish a thousand-word feature about the dangers of cholesterol in the Sunday health section.
“That’s not really my line of work, Milt.”
He nodded. “I know. But Gary Beckwirth insisted. He said to call you, and only you.”
“Beckwirth? Which one is Gary Beckwirth?”
“Beckwirth. You know. His wife is running Rachel Barlow’s campaign for mayor.”
I stared blankly at him. I follow municipal politics with the same enthusiasm I muster for the cricket scores from Bath.
“Their son Joel is a patrol kid at the middle school,” he tried, seeing if he could jog my memory.
“Oh, is he the one that busted Ethan for going to the bathroom without a hall pass?”
I remember everything that anybody has ever done to and for my children. The little Beckwirth son of a bitch hadn’t even bothered to check with Ethan’s teacher, and he’d practically forced my 11-year-old to have an accident in the corridor. Ethan had come home and locked himself in his room with Pokemon Stadium for three hours after that fiasco. Which is a half-hour longer than usual.
“You’re going to take that to your grave, aren’t you, Aaron?” asked Ladowski. “The kid did what he thought was the right thing.”
“So did Lee Harvey Oswald. Okay, so that’s Beckwirth. The father looks like some guy off a daytime soap, right? And the mother…”
“Madlyn is the mystery. She’s been missing for three days, and Gary’s worried. She never goes anywhere without telling him, and then in the middle of the night, Monday, she vanishes right out of their bed.”
My eye was distracted by a flier on Ladowski’s desk that mentioned the start of the Recreation Department’s baseball season. Ethan and Leah would probably both want to play. They’d both want me to coach. That’s three nights a week, and Sundays, from early April until late June. I’d look like a member of the walking dead by the time it was over. I don’t remember my parents coaching me in anything. They took me to the games and watched me strike out a lot, but coaching…
I was jolted out of my Dad-of-the-Year reverie. “I still don’t get why you’re telling me about this, Milt. Did Beckwirth go to Barry Dutton?”
Ladowski’s mouth straightened out, making a perfect horizontal line, showing his displeasure. His face didn’t look so good when it was smiling, so you can imagine. “Our esteemed chief of police has made some inquiries. Gary and Barry don’t get along very well.”
“That’s the title of a children’s book, isn’t it? Gary and Barry Don’t Get Along Very Well, by Dr. Seuss? Or was it the Berenstain Bears?”
“You’re very amusing.”
“I’m a goddam riot, to tell you the truth, but I’m still not a detective. So Beckwirth thinks the cops aren’t doing enough to find his wife. So fine. So go out and hire yourself an investigator to, uh, investigate. And why are you dealing with this, anyway? Did the borough hire you to ask freelance writers why a woman gets out of bed in the middle of the night and doesn’t come back? Our answer is almost always going to be ‘when’s the deadline, and how much per word.'”
Ladowski didn’t like the way this interview was going, but he had expected it. He’d known me a long time. Hell, everybody in this town knew everybody else a long time; half of them went to high school together. I’d been living here nine years, and they still considered me the “new guy.” Nobody ever left Midland Heights. Except, it seemed, Madlyn Beckwirth.
He stood up, to better emphasize the difference in our height. In other words, he has some. I’m 5’4″, and pretend I’m 5’5″ when I want to intimidate someone. Ladowski, on the other hand, is about 5’10”. But it’s not like I notice height.
“Gary asked me to look into it because I’m his attorney, and his friend. I’m not handling this for the borough, I’m doing it for Gary. He’s too upset right now to deal with people much. And he didn’t want a detective; he wanted someone who knows how this town works and the people in it. We don’t have any investigators in Midland Heights.”
“No, but we have more social workers, therapists and shrinks per capita than any other square mile of property in the known universe. Come to think of it, a shrink would probably be a better fit for Beckwirth right now than a freelancer.”
Ladowski sighed. He knew this was stupid, but his client had insisted. “He wants someone who can be… discreet. And when he heard that you’ve been an investigative reporter…”
It was my turn to sigh. Loudly. “Oh, come on, Milt, that was 20 years ago, and I only did it for six months. I wasn’t even a good investigative reporter. I was rooting out bad cops for the Herald-News in Passaic, and I found exactly one. The rest were so impressed with my work that they refused ever to speak to me again, and I ended up losing my job because I got scooped by two other papers on a regular basis. I’d hardly call that a stellar investigative record.”
“Gary heard the word ‘investigative,’ and that’s all he needed,” Ladowski said. His voice was calm, but he was eyeing the window with the definite thought of throwing himself out of it. Or me. Luckily, it was a first-floor office. The borough couldn’t afford a view for Ladowski, either.
“This is stupid, Milt. I’m not a detective. I don’t solve mysteries; I read them. I write newspaper and magazine features about electronics. You want to know about new DVD players, I’m your guy. You want to find a missing woman, you go to the cops or to detectives. I can’t help Gary Beckwirth.”
Ladowski did the last thing I’d have expected him to do. He smiled.
“Fine. You go tell him that.”